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Former Orbán spin doctor launches intʼl news agency

Árpád Habony, a former adviser to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has founded the V4 News Agency (V4NA), a London-based international news operation with output reflecting a strong pro-Hungarian government stance, for which some 50 journalists and editors have started work, according to local and foreign media reports.

Árpád Habony

Although describing itself as an “independent international news agency,” the owners of the company are New Wave Media Group (57%), which runs pro-government news portal origo.hu, and Danube Business Consulting (40%), which is controlled by Habony. Some 3% of the shares are held by Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky, Hungary’s ambassador to London, who formally registered the company in the U.K.

The stated aim of the new agency is to boost government communication on international news markets. According to its website, V4NA.com, the agency covers the life of Europe and the world from the perspective of the Visegrád Four (V4), the regional grouping of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

Initially it is publishing in two languages (English and Hungarian), but plans to expand its language profile later, according to reports.

Hungarian news portal Válasz Online reports that most of the staff come from Modern Media Group, now part of the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), the vast government-friendly centralized media holding founded late last year, and controversially exempted from scrutiny by media or competition authorities. Staff also reportedly include members of right-of-center business magazine Figyelő, and Attila Leitner, former editor-in-chief of pro-Fidesz tabloid Lokál.

Controlling the narrative?

A report by international news agency Reuters speculates as to the possible motivations for foundation of the media operation abroad.

“Orbán’s associates have gained control over a large chunk of the Hungarian media in recent years and his Fidesz party has taken total control of state media, drawing international accusations that they are weakening freedom of speech,” observes Reuters. “However, Orbán has been unable to control international news coverage, which has been far more critical of him than local media. The new agency’s early content suggests it is more sympathetic to him.”

Reuters notes that most of the agencyʼs website content is behind a paywall, but the selection of front-page headlines resonates with the populist message of the Hungarian government. Stories appearing on the front page at time of writing particularly reflect Fideszʼs fierce opposition to immigration and strong anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Sample V4NA.com headlines on April 10, echoing the Hungarian governmentʼs frequent conflation of immigration with terrorism, include “Terror threat in Germany: floodgates remain open” and “A new refugee wave to threaten Europe?” Another cites a poll claiming Czechs think there are “too many foreigners living in the country,” while another item reports favorably on a speech by Matteo Salvini, Italy’s anti-immigrant interior minister and Orbán ally.

Reuters adds that in an e-mailed statement, V4NA said it offers a “conservative, right-wing perspective” on European news, but declined to answer questions about its relationship with Hungary’s government or its business plans.

In a report Tuesday, the Bloomberg agency commented that until now, Orbán “has relied heavily on an increasingly centralized propaganda machine based in Budapest, employing newspapers and broadcasters across Hungary to amplify his views,” while close allies have influenced elections in countries in the former Yugoslavia after buying up outlets in Slovenia and Macedonia.

“Until now, they hadn’t had a major foray further west in the mold of Russia’s Sputnik news website and the RT television network,” Bloomberg observed.